This Star Wars article contains spoilers.
The idea for a Han Solo prequel existed for more than a decade prior to 2018’s Solo: A Star Wars Story. George Lucas first toyed with the notion in 2005’s Revenge of the Sith. One version of the film’s script featured a 10-year-old orphaned Han Solo who was being raised by Chewbacca. Lucas later planned to feature Han’s first meeting with Chewie and the circumstances that saw Solo win the Millennium Falcon in the scrapped Star Wars: Underworld TV series.
In hindsight, Lucas’ failure to get these projects off the ground was a blessing in disguise. Solo: A Star Wars Story suffered the ignominy of being the first Star Wars film to bomb at the box office, making $393 million off a $275 million budget – it was also one of the most expensive films ever made.
Fans also “had a bad feeling” about Solo long before the film arrived in cinemas. Much of that stemmed from the much-publizised difficulties involving the project’s original directing pair, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller.
Best known for their work on the 21 Jump Street films and The LEGO Movie, the pair’s penchant for ad-libbing and improvisation drew concern from the film’s writer Lawrence Kasdan and Lucasfilm president and producer Kathleen Kennedy, who felt the overly comedic tone was “shifting the story off-course.” It was eventually decided that Lord and Miller would depart, to be replaced by a safer pair of Hollywood hands – Ron Howard.
Whereas Lord and Miller had strived for a Solo tale inspired by Guardians of the Galaxy, Howard took his cues from the Original Trilogy and re-shot 70 percent of what the pair had put together. Against this uneasy background of behind-the-scenes angst, Solo debuted in late May 2018 to mixed reviews, with many noting the film’s uneven tone.
Yet there is a feeling that somewhere along the way, Solo might have been on its way to being a great film. Though fans are hardly clamoring for it in the way some still call for the Zack Snyder cut of Justice League to be released, it would be fascinating to see what Lord and Miller had in the can.
Arguably, Solo’s biggest issue is its reverence for the original films, which prevents it from striking out on its own. It’s a film that takes the concept of the origin story to ridiculous new heights. Viewers learn about the origins of everything, from Han’s (Alden Ehrenreich) trademark blaster to the Millennium Falcon’s lucky dice, and, in one contrived moment, the surname Solo.
While it makes sense to include things like Han’s first encounter with Chewbacca and the circumstances that see the pair strike up a friendship, the desire to pay lip service to the things fans know and love results in a movie that feels too busy and a little too predictable.
The development of Han’s relationship with Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and the successful completion of the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs, for example, are events worthy of a movie in themselves. Instead, they feature as just part of Han Solo’s very first space adventure.
Considering Solo begins 10 years before the events of A New Hope, it seems odd that so much of the Han Solo legend is written here, save for a meeting with Jabba the Hut – and even then, there was talk of a potential Jabba cameo.
The film is at its best when exploring new territory rather than revisiting old ground. For example, Woody Harrelson’s introduction as Tobias Beckett breathes a bit of life into proceedings as the leader of a rag-tag group of rogue criminals and provides the necessary narrative impetus to get Han involved in some space smuggling skulduggery.
The train heist engineered to steal a shipment of coaxium on the snowy peaks of the entirely new planet of Vandor is a notable highlight, spectacularly realized and packed full of surprises (Thandie Newton’s Val!). It’s just a shame it feels like a scene from another, more exciting, Solo movie.
Any momentum generated by that sequence dissipates as the film progresses and things get bogged down by an uninspiring love story involving Emilia Clarke’s Qi’ra (criminally underused), an underwhelming villain, and an unnecessary sub-plot involving the freedom fighting Cloud-Riders (Han helping the rebel alliance? Already!?). That said, Enfys Nest is pretty cool!
Star Wars films have often struggled to recreate the kind of chemistry Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher enjoyed in the Original Trilogy but were fairly consistent when it came to villains. Paul Bettany’s Dryden Vos, though, feels like an opportunity missed when you consider Lord and Miller originally had The Wire’s Michael Kenneth Williams playing the crime lord as a motion-captured alien character resembling a mountain lion. Scheduling conflicts meant Williams couldn’t return for Howard’s reshoots, resulting in Bettany’s solid but less distinctive efforts.
There are positive plot points, of course, with the Han and Beckett’s journey together providing some enjoyable twists and turns, not least in its conclusion. There’s also that cameo at the end which hints at exciting times ahead. But ultimately the film is hindered by an overstuffed script that fails to adhere to a mantra Yoda taught us all: sometimes less is more.
Best lightsaber bit: The reappearance of Darth Maul, who is revealed as the criminal mastermind behind Red Dawn and Qi’ra’s boss. Maul was both the best thing about The Phantom Menace – despite a striking look and fighting style involving a double-bladed lightsaber, his time was cut (literally) short by Obi-Wan. Or so we thought. While Darth Maul was resurrected on The Clone Wars TV show, his cinematic comeback was confirmed here. Striking up his lightsaber with relish, Maul orders Qi’ra to meet him on Dathomir, with the pair set to “work closely” together. We want more.
Best non-lightsaber bit: The coaxium train heist on Vandor-1 is both visually spectacular and suitably dramatic with the newly-introduced planet’s icy, mountainous surrounds contributing to an explosive and genuinely thrilling action setpiece that also provides the film’s first major shock – the death of Thandie Newton’s character Val, Beckett’s partner, who ends up as collateral damage in the battle against the Cloud-Riders pirate gang.
Jedi Wisdom: Solo is the first Star Wars film in the official canon that makes no mention of either the Jedi order or the Jedi Knights. There is some wisdom on offer, though, courtesy of Woody Harrelson’s Tobias Beckett and the depressing and spoiler-heavy advice: “Assume everyone will betray you. And you will never be disappointed.”
Rules of the Force: Solo is also the first and so far, only Star Wars movie in which the characters make no mention of the ways of the Force. It is not centered on any Jedi and does not feature any fighters from the Skywalker bloodline. The closest fans get to any new rules is the revelation that Force-sensitive Dathomirian Zabrak males can survive being sliced in half by lightsabers.
Who has a bad feeling about this? Han offers up a sly twist on the Star Wars classic here, confidently declaring “I have a good feeling about this” prior to some potentially tricky flying aboard the Millennium Falcon. It’s one of a couple of knowing, tongue-in-cheek, moments from the movie – later, when Lando Calrissian tells Han “I hate you,” Han replies, “I know.”
Galactic stop-offs: Five planets make their Star Wars big-screen debuts in Solo. The first is Corellia, Han and Qi’ra’s homeworld, a grey and overcast planet with a landscape dominated by industrial machinery and little else. From there, the action heads to the swamp planet of Mimban, a war-torn overcast world blanketed in perpetual fog where Han, serving as an Imperial infantryman, first meets Tobias Beckett and, later, Chewbacca. Next up is the icy, mountainous setting of Vandor-1, the planet that serves as the backdrop for Beckett’s botched Crimson Dawn coaxium train heist. Fans are finally given a glimpse of Kessel, a nondescript mining planet rich in coaxium. Last but not least there’s Savareen, a coastal-heavy desert and ocean planet populated by rudimentary coaxium refiners and the setting for the film’s finale.
Who wins? The Light, but it’s close. Han initially served the side of the Dark, helping steal coaxium at the behest of crime lord Dryden Vos. Things change when Han is confronted by Enfys and her band of Cloud-Riders, who reveal themselves to be rebels fighting back against the tyrannical state and, by proxy, the Empire. This revelation prompts Han into making an uncharacteristically selfless decision that involves concocting a plan to see Dryden destroyed and the coaxium handed to the Cloud-Riders to assist them in their fight against the Republic. It’s not all sunshine and light though, with Han ultimately forced to murder his double-crossing mentor Beckett while Qi’ra reveals her own leanings towards the Dark Side, with Dryden’s death seeing her move into second in command under Darth Maul with more dastardly plans afoot. Even so, she fails to give up Han’s name to Maul – could there be hope?